Literature

Thomas Bernhard’s Walking is the #1 funniest book of all time LOL

June 2, 2016
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Thomas Bernhard’s Walking is the #1 funniest book of all time LOL

Can’t make this stuff up. From Adam Ehrlich Sachs’s “The 10 Funniest Books” at Publishers Weekly: 1. Walking by Thomas Bernhard  Bernhard’s oeuvre is the longest, funniest joke in literature. If I were being honest this list would probably consist of nine Bernhard books and maybe one by Beckett. But I’ll go with this novella for its extremely long, hysterically funny description of Karrer’s mental breakdown in a clothing store, when he tries to convince a salesman, at some length, that the pants they are selling, when held up to the light, display a number of thin spots that can only be attributed to the use of shoddy materials, materials which Karrer insists (for page after page after page) must be what he refers to as “Czechoslovakian rejects.” To read more about (the patently absurd/deeply wounded/somberly screwball, which might be synonyms for “funny,” so we’ll take it) Walking, click here.   . . .

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The Dead Ladies Art of Memoir Writing

May 25, 2016
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The Dead Ladies Art of Memoir Writing

From “Live through This,” by Catherine Hollis, her recent essay at Public Books on how much of our own lives we construct when we read and write memoirs: In The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries, Jessa Crispin, the scrappy founding editor of Bookslut and Spolia, finds herself at an impasse when a suicide threat brings the Chicago police to her apartment. She needs a reason to live, and turns to the dead for help. “The writers and artists and composers who kept me company in the late hours of the night: I needed to know how they did it.” How did they stay alive? She decides to go visit them—her “dead ladies”—in Europe, and leave the husk of her old life behind. Crispin’s list includes men and women, exiles and expatriates, each of whom is paired with a European city. Her first port of call is Berlin, and William James. Rather than explicitly narrating her own struggle, Crispin focuses on James’s depressive crisis in Berlin, where as a young man he learned how to disentangle his thoughts and desires from his father’s. Out of James’s own decision to live—“my first act of free will shall be to believe in free will”—the . . .

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Jessa Crispin on US literary culture

May 16, 2016
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Jessa Crispin on US literary culture

From Michelle Dean’s profile of Jessa Crispin for the Guardian: Staying outside of that mainstream, Crispin said, had some professional costs. “We didn’t generate people that are now writing for the New Yorker,” Crispin said. “If we had, I would have thought that we were failures anyway.” She’s bored by the New Yorker. In fact, of the current crop of literary magazines, she said only the London Review of Books currently interested her, especially articles by Jenny Diski or Terry Castle. Of the New Yorker itself, she said: “It’s like a dentist magazine.” Crispin’s general assessment of the current literary situation is fairly widely shared in, of all places, New York. It is simply rarely voiced online. Writers, in an age where an errant tweet can set off an avalanche of op-eds more widely read than the writers’ actual books, are cautious folk. And Crispin can’t stand the way some of these people have become boosters of the industry just at the moment of what she sees as its decline. “I don’t know why people are doing this, but people are identifying themselves with the system,” Crispin said. “So if you attack publishing, they feel that they are personally being attacked. Which . . .

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Levi Stahl on Ted Cruz and Kenneth Widmerpool

April 8, 2016
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Levi Stahl on Ted Cruz and Kenneth Widmerpool

For those of you who missed it, here is Levi Stahl’s 31-part Twitter essay from late last week, which responds to an op-ed in the New York Times by columnist Ross Douthat comparing Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz to Widmerpool, the anti-anti-hero from Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time:   To read more about A Dance to the Music of Time, click here. . . .

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Ted Cruz as Kenneth Widmerpool next Halloween

March 28, 2016
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Ted Cruz as Kenneth Widmerpool next Halloween

File under deep cuts. Recently in the New York Times, columnist Ross Douthat suggested an apt analogy, or at least a plausibly shared archetype, between Ted Cruz and Kenneth Widmerpool, the fictional (anti) anti-hero from Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time series: A dogged, charmless, unembarrassed striver, Widmerpool begins Powell’s novels as a figure of mockery for his upper-class schoolmates. But over the course of the books he ascends past them — to power, influence, a peerage — through a mix of ruthless effort, ideological flexibility, and calculated kissing-up. Enduring all manner of humiliations, bouncing back from every setback, tacking right and left with the times, he embodies the triumph of raw ambition over aristocratic rules of order. “Widmerpool,” the narrator realizes at last, sounding like a baffled, Cruz-hating Republican senator today, “once so derided by all of us, had in some mysterious manner become a person of authority.” This is not exactly a flattering comparison. But the American reader, less enamored of a fated aristocratic order, may find aspects of Widmerpool’s character curiously sympathetic. And some of that strange sympathy could be extended to Cruz. To read more about A Dance to the Music of Time, click here. . . .

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David Hall on The Last Hurrah

March 15, 2016
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David Hall on The Last Hurrah

In timely coincidence with today’s primaries and the book’s return to print, The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor received some well-tailored praise from Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist David Hall, writing in the Columbia Daily Herald,  who suggests we: Take a breather from the daily pounding of politics and reflect: chaos, confusion, and gutter campaigning are not new. . . . Even today’s politics are not speeding away. We have survived travail through democracy. Good and thoughtful fiction lets us pause and reflect. Honing in on The Last Hurrah, an almost-story adapted from the life of notorious Boston mayor James Michael Curley, he writes of the book’s foreboding about the nature of the relationship between media and politics: Another poignant tale of American politics is The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor. Set in an old and mainline northeastern city, the novel examines the dying days of machine politics when largess held voters in sway. Frank Skeffington, 72, believes he is entitled to one more term. His political compass loses its bearing against a young, charismatic challenger, void of political experience but adorned with war medals and good looks. O’Connor’s 1956 novel was prescient in portraying the impact television would have on politics. While The Last . . .

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Norman Maclean and the Christian Tragedy

February 16, 2016
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Norman Maclean and the Christian Tragedy

The most recent issue of Commonweal includes “The River Runs On: Norman Maclean’s Christian Tragedies,” a long-form piece by Timothy B. Schilling, who goes on to read Maclean (expectedly, given the title) through both Christianity and tragedy—but most compellingly, through the author’s own often contradictory and ambivalent relationship to religion. You can read the piece in full here; a brief excerpt from Young Men and Fire that situates the Smokejumpers—first responders to the Mann Gulch fire of 1949, from which the book takes its name— in this context follows below. Maclean tells us that most of the Smokejumpers believe in God. “You wouldn’t dare jump,” they say, “if it was empty out there.” But of the sixteen who descended to fight the fire, only three survived. What then—for them, for us—is the last word in this story? Does the Mann Gulch fire reveal the ultimate tragedy of all human experience? Or does it enjoin us to embrace the world’s faith traditions in looking for a life and a truth beyond death? As in A River Runs Through It, Maclean counters fatalism with Christian symbols and biblical allusions, including references to the Stations of the Cross, the Mass, Calvary, and the Book of Job. He . . .

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Jessa Crispin on St. Teresa and the Single Ladies for the NYT

January 12, 2016
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Jessa Crispin on St. Teresa and the Single Ladies for the NYT

In addition to making an appearance in the “Briefly Noted” books section of the New Yorker, the Cheers equivalent of finding an empty chair between Norm and Cliff at the bar, this week Jessa Crispin, author of The Dead Ladies Project, published an opinion piece at the New York Times on singlehood and St. Teresa, riffing on her pilgrimage to Ávila, the saint’s town. Here’s a nugget of what’s waiting over at the NYT: Five hundred years after St. Teresa, and there are still very few models for women of how to live outside of coupledom, whether that is the result of a choice or just bad luck. I can’t remember the last time I saw a television show or a film about a single woman, unless her single status was a problem to be solved or an illustration of how deeply damaged she was. This continues even as more and more women are staying single longer and longer. I’ve been single for the most part going on 11 years now, and so I have heard every derogatory, patronizing, demeaning thing said about single women. “There has to be someone for you,” a married woman friend once said exasperatedly after I recounted another bad date. Implying, unconsciously, . . .

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An interview with Jessa Crispin at T + L

December 2, 2015
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An interview with Jessa Crispin at T + L

From Molly McArdle’s interview with Jessa Crispin about The Dead Ladies Project at Travel + Leisure:  “Though they are not all ladies, her subjects took part in what could be called the creative life, whether they made, published, or fed great works of art. Crispin’s book mixes criticism, memoir, and travel writing into a collection of essays that is brutal and empathetic, languorous and impatient, smart and, well, smart.” *** What are the responsibilities of a travel writer? How do they differ from the responsibilities of a traveler? Do travelers have any responsibilities at all? “Of course travelers have responsibilities! You have the responsibility not to be an asshole! Not to see this country as being laid out on a platter for your taking. You are a guest—you have to respect that this place has nothing to do with you. Too often you see travelers looking at a landscape and asking, “What can I take from this?” Even the obnoxious dudes who make a big deal about the difference between the “traveler” and the “tourist.” Travel writers have an even greater responsibility, because then they are telling stories about this place that has nothing to do with them, and there is a very long . . .

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Jessa Crispin on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight

November 3, 2015
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Jessa Crispin, author of The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Expats, and Ex-Countries and editor-in-chief at Bookslut and Spolia magazine(s), recently appeared on an episode of WTTW’s Chicago Tonight, her former stomping grounds as book reviewer. Along with video of Crispin’s conversation (not Dorothy Gale, 2:12; running away to Romania, 6:00; “Don’t Do It, Harper Lee,” 7:58), there’s an excerpt from the book on William James and Berlin, and some quotes from the interview, if digital players leave you cold. You can read more about The Dead Ladies Project, here. . . .

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